By Charles Kumolu, Deputy Editor
President of Nigerian Citizens Association in South Africa, NICASA, Ben Okoli, in this interview, tells Sunday Vanguard how Nigerians are settling down after recent xenophobic attacks and the import of fence-mending meetings between Nigeria and South Africa. He also speaks on the fate of Nigerian returnees.
President Muhammadu Buhari recently visited his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, over the xenophobic attacks on Nigerians. What is the attitude of South Africans since the President’s visit?
His visit restored the pride of Nigerians and he made us proud to be Nigerians again. The South African government has shown remorse after the xenophobic attacks by apologising to Nigeria. They did not stop at that, they apologised to our Foreign Affairs Minister. We are aware that they regretted and promised that it would not happen again. Above all, our dignity as a nation was restored because Nigeria stood its ground to tell South Africa that what happened was not something to be tolerated.
We are very happy that our President visited and supported Nigerians in South Africa. We cannot thank him enough. We would continue to thank him for what he has done. Shortly after his visit South Africa announced a new visa regime for Nigerians. It covers frequent travellers to South Africa, business people, and students. This is unprecedented.
It had never happened before. It is one of the benefits of President Muhammadu Buhari’s visit. We expect to see more positive developments from the visit because we know that so many things were agreed upon by the two nations. We would continue to press for compensation for the victims of xenophobia.
Is it right to go ahead with the demand after apologies had been offered by South Africa?
We are going ahead with the demand because as an association, we believe our citizens have a good ground to file a petition in that respect. We are still discussing with our legal team because we have already itemised the losses and the people who incurred the losses are already known. The addresses where they happened are also known. We are strongly working on how they can be compensated. Many people lost their means of livelihood and these are businesses that had been built for several years.
Some businesses that were destroyed had existed for 15 years and they were well established. We cannot stop demanding compensation. What are the victims going to fall back on? In all, the visit of our President has restored our dignity here. We appreciate him and his team. We commend him for what he did in South Africa.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo visited South Africa and interacted with Ramaphosa. He came back with the call on returnees to go back, saying the strained relations had been cemented. Do you agree with him?
The visit of former President Obasanjo was not widely known by Nigerians here in South Africa. It was only a few of us who were aware that he visited. His visit was well appreciated but it did not generate the kind of attention it would have generated if he was still in power.
We can say that it was good that he visited at the time he did, but we would not ask our people who have gone home to come back. If they come back, what are they coming to do? It was good they returned to Nigeria. Nigerian government should create a platform to assist them and reintegrate them into the society. Doing so would make them useful to themselves and the nation. We would not appreciate any suggestion for them to return to South Africa. Most of them have bad tales to tell. The xenophobic attacks affected them badly to the point that they freely decided to go back. I know a lot of people who lost so much and they are so traumatised that they cannot come back here.
We know what they experienced. After the xenophobic attacks, I took the Consulate General, Godwin Adama, to the areas the attacks happened and it was a terrible sight. It was like a war zone. Asking people who have passed through such an experience to come back is not fair enough. Anyone, who decides to come back can do so.
At the level of NICASA, did you initiate any programme to foster peace between Nigerians and their host communities in South Africa?
Our annual convention would hold next month. It is meant to foster social cohesion. It is a vehicle to reach out to people. We have a lot to do with our South African brothers. Last Sunday, in the Province of Northern Cape, we held a unity rally with South Africans. It was aimed at fostering social cohesion. We organised a race for solidarity in conjunction with the Municipal of Northern Cape. It was titled ‘Say No to Xenophobia.”
NICASA participated and it served as a platform for reaching out to the local people. In other provinces, we have a rebranding and repositioning project. In November, the Nigerian Mission and Consulate are organising a big event with a private company. Notable Nigerian artistes would perform alongside the South African counterparts.
It would also be a vehicle for cohesion. Other programmes would take place next month to ensure that there is an understanding between Nigerians and South Africans. We intend to ride on the gains we have made to achieve more.
We cannot succeed if we do not include South Africans in our project. These programmes aim at telling South Africans that Nigerians are not what a few miscreants want them to believe. We have great Nigerians here who are doing great things. The media in South Africa does not focus on that. They only look for negative things about Nigeria to project. NICASA would be the vehicle that would be pushing for a change of narrative so that positive things about Nigerians are projected.
Nigerians in South Africa were accused of importing certain Nigerian habits like flaunting of wealth, thereby making poor South Africans feel bad about their situation. Has NICASA commenced any programme to discourage Nigerians from doing so?
I can say categorically that the things listed do not lead to xenophobic attacks. The attacks are as a result of unguarded statements and inciting statements by South African politicians. They use the statements to gain access into office. They incite people into being violent by promising that they are going to work for them.
When they eventually get into power, they don’t fulfil their promises. When people react as a result of the failures, they lie to them that Nigerians are the ones taking their jobs. This is a very beautiful country and Nigerians here are well behaved.
It is only a few Nigerians on the streets that are giving us a bad name. These people constitute a minute percentage of the total number of Nigerians in South Africa. As I am speaking to you now, our Organising Secretary, Rev Osifo is here. He is a pastor and owns a school. He uses the school to educate people in the community where he lives. I also have our Welfare Officer here, Mrs. Gloria Anaegboka. She has been training South Africans on how to be experts in the culinary industry. This woman owns restaurants here in South Africa and she employs many South Africans.
That Nigerians are flaunting their wealth should not be an excuse to attack Nigerians. It is not acceptable to us. It is the political elite that are fanning the embers of disunity and hatred. They are making the South Africans hate Nigerians because they feel Nigeria is a threat.
They feel Nigeria is competing with them. It is beyond what many people think. It is a rivalry between the two nations. That is not putting it mildly but saying it as it is. We have South Africans who are not doing the right thing in Nigeria as well but it is not enough for Nigerians to say that South Africans are bad. The claims that our compatriots live a life of opulence do not stand.
Should anyone earning enough live in penury? Should the person live in penury because he wants to impress people? NICASA is ensuring that Nigerians in South Africa do the right thing by living a decent life, earning a decent living and ensuring that they don’t get involved in crime. We are encouraging our people to be law-abiding. That was what our President also told us to do when he visited. Xenophobia is not about affluence and poverty because South Africans are not poor. It is a rich country and the people are doing well. They are not poor by any standard.
The way we have some poor people in Nigeria is also the same way we have poor people in South Africa. That should not be an excuse for some people to attack others, claiming they are criminals. We will not stop discouraging a few Nigerians from misrepresenting us until they stop.